Exhibiting Ingenuity: Conservation

In October 2014 I started a six month conservation internship in Special Collections under accredited Conservator Louise Robertson. I had previously been working in archives in Dublin and adapting my conservation knowledge to 3D bound volumes was both exciting and a new challenge. Lou was involved with the exhibition since the planning stages and had organised the treatment programme. When I started, the books were already condition assessed for display and Lou had started on the more complicated bindings.  Her talk ‘Conservation of Incunabula’ will be a fascinating insight to the pre-exhibition conservation project which will bring together all the elements of the project we have worked on.

The condition assessment stated whether the books were in good, fair or poor condition. All the books in the exhibition were thoroughly cleaned in advance of display. The condition of over half of the books was fair which meant that they would require some form of remedial conservation being considered ready for exhibition. Each book was different but this generally meant that tears in the text block would need to be consolidated with Japanese tissue or losses in the paper would require infills. Books in poor condition would have had significant damage to the binding structure such as detached boards or breakdowns in sewing structures.

I had previously been working on large, flat, paper objects and working on pages bound in a 3D structure required a more flexible approach to accessing the repairs. For instance, the Nuremberg Bible required tear repairs on multiple pages. Repairs need to be held in the right position whilst they dry which was a new skill when trying to do more than one on different pages. The repairs had to be made quickly so the moisture did not cause the page to warp or affect the inks.

Sp Coll BD19-b.2

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The largest infill was to a manuscript from the Hunter collection. A piece of tissue just larger than the loss was prepared and adhered to the back of the repair. Then, a piece of thicker Japanese paper the same shape as the loss was adhered to the tissue. The excess was then trimmed.

Sp Coll MS Hunter 282

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The Blockbook Apocalypse was a bigger project that took around 30 hours. According to the binders note on the back end pages, the book was rebound in 1906 and over the last century the pages have split near the guards. The pages were lifting from the lining paper and many of the edges had deteriorated. Also, it was possible at this point that the fore edges were cut back too far and had to be re-adhered. These weaker areas were consistent on most of the pages and were getting increasingly fragile as a result of handling.

Sp Coll Ds.2.3

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After discussions between curators and conservators, it was not deemed appropriate to rebind the textblock before the exhibition, so weak areas were reinforced with tissue or lightweight paper in-situ. The Japanese paper applied is very fine and can be used on top of the illustrations without greatly altering the appearance. Can you tell the difference between the before and after pictures  of the display page below?

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Where the pages were completely detached, a length of Japanese tissue was adhered to the edge of the leaf and re-attached to the guard. The result of this treatment is that the volume is now stable enough for exhibition and handling.

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Many of the boards were either fully or partially detached. In these instances the leather was consolidated and reattached with a strong Japanese paper which was toned on the outside to resemble the colour of the binding. The joints where the boards are joined to the spine receive a lot of stress when the book is being used so it was important to make them robust as well as discrete. This book was used for the display on Aldus Manutius up in Special Collections on level 12 of the library, curated by Michelle Craig.

Sp Coll Bc.2.1

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We were lucky enough to have some very early bindings in the exhibition, for example this medical text which is in a 16th century pigskin quarter binding.  Unfortunately the back board had split along the grain. There was only a narrow gap for the adhesive repair so it was applied using a syringe. Mount board and cotton archival tape was used to hold the board in place so the adhesive would dry with the board lying flat.

Sp Coll Ferguson Am-z.44

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The internship was very informative as I had to learn how to adapt the techniques I knew to a different context as well as specific book skills, such as board reattachments.  Under Lou’s patient instruction, I have become more confident in my approach to repairing these valuable texts. The age of the incunables is fairly intimidating but it is a pleasure to work on these books which are both beautiful and examples of technically inventive book production.

For more information see blogs in this series on; the exhibition, its designprinting workshops and illuminations.



Categories: Special Collections

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